Ian McMillan: Lolly and the ivy

A couple of years ago I presented a choir's Christmas concert in Chester Cathedral and, exhilarated by the setting and the way the voices seems to hang in the air and light up the huge structure, I offered to write them a new carol with the help of my composer friend Luke Carver Goss; we've written things together over the years, including songs and operas (well, one opera) and pieces for brass bands and I really fancied the idea of creating a brand new carol that would be sung for years to come in all kinds of settings, that could become the new Silent Night.


It took ages to write the words and make them simple and memorable enough to work on a first hearing and Luke put a stirring tune to them and the choir sang it beautifully and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I was bitten by the carol-writing bug, I have to say, and I really wanted to have a go at writing some more. Luke and I do gigs all over the place and at the end of each show I would announce that if there were any people in the audience who were members of choirs, we’d love to have a go at writing a carol for them. The response has been good, which means that, at the start of July, I’m deep in the chiselling out stage with some lyrics for a piece that hopefully will be premiered in North Lincolnshire in December.

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And that’s the hump I’ve got to get over; the contrast between the word “July” and the word “December”. The carol will be sung by people who are wearing scarves and gloves and woolly hats; if it’s sung in any kind of open space then the melodious breath of the singers will hang in the winter air like wispy tinsel. I’m writing the words in shorts and an open-necked shirt. I’m pausing every now and then to sip iced water. I’m, not to put too fine a point on it, 

I’ve tried to get myself in the Christmas mood by arranging some Christmas cards on the table in front of me. I’ve got a tiny fake Christmas tree out that used to belong to my mam and I’ve put it right in my eyeline. I’ve been eating Christmas cake with cheese and pigs in blankets just to make myself feel as Christmassy as possible. I considered asking my wife to dress up as Father Christmas and burst into the room shouting Ho Ho Ho but I kind of know what she’d say and it wouldn’t be yes. I’d put some Yuletide music on but I know it would seep into my brain and affect what I’m writing.

I’ll crack on. I’ll drop an ice cube down my neck to make me shiver. I’ll watch The Snowman and Miracle on 34th Street. What rhymes with frankincense?

And if any choir members are reading this, I’d love to have a go at writing you a brand new carol.

Drop me a line. I’ll do it in the winter, though: it’ll be easier. Much easier.